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Ron Vale

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Q&A: Ron Vale, new chief of Janelia Research Campus, on why 15 years is a good research time frame

This week, cell biologist Ron Vale was named executive director of Janelia Research Campus, the in-house research arm of the $20 billion Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Vale, now at the University of California, San Francisco, has been part of HHMI’s cadre of roughly 300 investigators at institutions for the past 24 years. Next January, he will replace fruit fly geneticist Gerald Rubin, Janelia’s director since its founding in 2003.

When the now–$130 million Janelia opened its doors on the site of a former farm in Ashburn, Virginia, some questioned its narrow focus on neurobiology and suggested the funding should go toward adding HHMI investigators. But the institute is now a well-established research center with 41 small groups and 190 total lab staff.

In late 2017, HHMI announced some tweaks: Focus areas will be limited to 15 years. The institute is refocusing its work on brain circuitry to study the mechanisms of cognition. And a new research area will be added every 5 years, starting with one to be chosen by an ongoing open competition. One constant will be the institute’s work on tools such as novel microscopes.

Vale, 60, studies motor proteins that move cargo around cells. He’s also known for his open science projects, such as ASAPbio, a nonprofit he founded that promotes the sharing of preprints among biologists. Vale, who will also be an HHMI vice president, recently spoke with ScienceInsider about his new job. (The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)

Q: What appealed to you about this position?

A: I'm greatly interested in science culture and that’s one of the reasons I was very attracted. Janelia is a very interesting, kind of unique experiment that allows scientists to do their work in unique ways, from small groups that work together to promoting young scientists, to an environment that rewards technology and tool building. Doing that experiment well is important for scientists elsewhere as well. The impact could be much greater than that of Janelia itself.

Q: Were you involved in setting the 15-year time frame for Janelia focus areas?

A: It began before the search [for my position]. But all of the changes are also really great … I'm fully on board with them. It’s a very important balance between having enough time to take on important and potentially high-risk problems, but also from a counterpoint, having some dynamicity to the organization and the institute.

Q: What if a field is just hitting cruising speed after 15 years?

A: No doubt things are going to be learned, but starting off, 15 years is a nice amount of time. It promotes risk-taking and willingness to take on something ambitious at a much longer time scale than the standard 4- or 5-year grant. At the same time, there is some sense of urgency. I think some sense of a time window can be very healthy for people to feel like they should strive to succeed at the highest level and get as much done as they can in that period of time.

Q: So, will part of your job be moving people out and bringing new ones in?

A: I think the challenge of this dynamic model is people are coming in, projects are coming in and leaving but at any given moment you want the place humming like a well-integrated system, where everyone’s communicating well, where it doesn’t feel like siloed projects. There’s going to be a continuous remodeling of Janelia in terms of projects and ideas. It will be fun for me and my goal is to make it fun for everyone working at Janelia.